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What History Tells Us About High-Speed Rail

In a Q&A, Stanford historian Richard White discusses the parallels between railroads of the 1800s and today's high-speed rail.

There are many parallels between North American trains of the late 19th century and those today, according to Stanford University historian Richard White. In writing the upcoming book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, he examines how trains of the U.S., Mexico and Canada went bankrupt or entered into settlements with the government to repay them. Now he’s worried history will repeat itself with the California high-speed rail project.

In a Q&A at his Stanford office, he talked about the corrupt history of the rail, the types of public transit the government should be investing in and where a high-speed rail system can and should work.

Gilroy Patch: Can you talk a little bit about how the lessons learned from the trancontinentals of the late 1800s can be applied to that of today’s rails being built?

Richard White: Sure. There’s a couple of ways you can approach this. What’s happening in the 1860s is the beginning of a government-corporate partnership, which, with rises and falls, persists to the present day. The transcontinental railroad depends on public subsidies; they depend on powerful lobbies to make sure that they have the political connections that they need; they become corporations that are resurrected over and over again, despite their financial and political failures. And by their very size and their very power, even though they’re not successful businesses, come to shape everything around them.

So, in that way, they’re very similar to a project like the California high-speed rail. At the beginning, the transcontinentals promised Americans everything. They were going to unite the country; they were going to save the West Coast through the Civil War; they were going to develop the interior; they were going to settle the continent. They were going to do all this at no cost to the American people.

Partially, the transcontinentals lied, and partially, these promises were beyond fulfillment by anybody. I think this ties into high-speed rail, because if everything high-speed rail said were true, there would be no reason to oppose it. Supposedly, it’s going to pay off its costs; supposedly, it’s going to deliver us high-speed transportation within California with a much smaller carbon footprint than automobiles and airplanes; supposedly, Californians are going to flock to it in such high numbers that operating costs are going to be taken care of; supposedly, (besides the bonds Californians have floated for it), the rest was going to be paid for by federal subsidies. 

The problem is, as with the transcontinentals, . 

Patch: Governments such as China, and many companies, have said they want to help fund the high-speed rail project. Do you think that this will pan out?

White: I don’t think China is in a position to fund anything. The Washington Post just did a series on the Chinese high-speed rail, and virtually everything that I’m afraid is going to happen with the California high-speed rail has already happened in China. Their technology is defective; they have to lower the speed of the trains; the building of the roads has been way over costs, and there’s been a huge amount of corruption; they’re deeply in debt; and the ridership is far less than anybody estimated. What they have in China is a huge railroad bubble. So why we would expect to get Chinese advice and help is literally beyond me. Because what they have built is a system that embodies all the failures we fear for California.

All these companies are coming to high-speed rail, because they’re looking to make money off of huge public investments. The financial help is inconsistent. They want contracts. They’re not going to give money unless it's a rebate, but rebates aren’t really contracts, because you take federal money and you give a portion back. 

Patch: You mentioned in a recent New York Times editorial that these trains can be successful in some parts of the country. What accounts for the contrast?

White: In places they’ve been successful, they’ve literally been able to pay their construction costs. Not necessarily their operating costs. That’s been in Tokyo, and then Paris and Lyon. Those routes are places where several things happen that don’t happen in California. First of all, they connect to an existing rail system in which you get off the train and get on another train. They connect cities where people can take public transit to get to the trains. If you’ve ever been on French trains, you know how integrated the whole system is. Even in France, there’s only one line that meets its operating costs.

I’m all for subsidizing urban infrastructure, and even rail infrastructure, in California. But we don’t ride subways; we don’t ride light rail. What we’re betting on is that we’re going to ride this railroad even when we’ve refused to ride all other local railroads, especially on the Peninsula.

The reason it will probably work for the Northeast corridor—and even there it will be expensive—is that people already ride trains. We simply that Californians are going to get on trains.

Let’s say in a city like Palo Alto, we wanted to ride high-speed rail. First we get in our cars. Then we’re going to drive up to San Francisco. And then we’re going to park our cars. We’re going to get on a high-speed rail. There’s going to be a limited number of stops if they ever get the thing into Los Angeles. You get off in Anaheim. You get off in downtown LA. You rent another car, and you go around. Basically, you’re still going to be driving a lot the whole trip.

Recent studies out of Cal-Berkeley show very little carbon savings—under 1 percent, compared to if we simply left our cars and planes intact. 

Patch: Do you think many people will switch over?

White: What they’re talking about is simply more people taking high-speed rail than currently take rails back and forth on the East Coast. You’re talking about every man, woman and child in California taking high-speed rail twice a year. When you haven’t built something, you can claim anything you want for it, and that’s what they do. There’s absolutely no evidence.

In almost every case I know of, their projections [of ridership] have been far higher than the number of people who actually switch over. So I’m just very skeptical, and I think everyone should be skeptical when a project is going to cost this much. And the cost is constantly rising. 

Patch: Is there any form of public transit in California that you feel could be successful?

White: If you want to get people out of cars, if you want to lower the carbon footprint, what you have to do is concentrate on most of the trips taken in California. Most are not between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Most are quite local. Anybody who’s lived in Los Angeles or lived in the Bay Area realizes we have some of the worst mass transit in the country. We should be working on local things that get people out of cars and make a far greater difference. This is more difficult to do. It’s also far less expensive. It’s also far less glamorous. 

Patch: Historically speaking, what accounts for the East Coast having such a successful rail infrastructure, while the West Coast is lacking?

White: First, there’s a higher population density. There’s a strong correlation between the success of the high-speed rail and the population density.

The other one you have to go to quite specific historical developments. Los Angeles, for example, for awhile did have light rail within Los Angeles. But Henry Huntington’s lines were badly maintained, dangerous, angered many citizens and were very corrupt.

What you need is a public system where people will have confidence that it works all of the time. The places I’ve lived where they have good mass transit, you shouldn’t even have to look at a schedule; they just come. So you both need the density and a system which is reliably run. The private systems that have existed in Los Angeles and even San Francisco were not reliably run. 

Patch: Unlike other countries, the U.S. doesn’t have much of an infrastructure for high-speed rail. So I’ve heard many cite it as an example of what we could be capable of.

White: Part of it is political. I’m a Democrat, but it’s no surprise to me that these things are located in places where Democrats hope to gain votes. But, in fact, as an economic stimulus measure, this is not doing anybody any good. And many of the jobs will be overseas. The reason the Japanese and the Chinese and the French are so interested is they’re going to build the trains. We’re not. 

Patch: Especially in places such as Gilroy, where the train will make a stop, I’ve heard the argument made that local jobs will be created and more of a downtown area will be formed.

White: Well, think about this: Who’s gonna get on the train in Gilroy? [laughs] People in Gilroy might take a train to San Francisco, they might take it to Los Angeles, but as I understand it, you have to go at least 200 miles to make this really efficient, more efficient than cars. 

Developers will develop around the train station, and they will certainly make money. That’s where you have a key constituency for this, and all the contractors who are going to build it. A lot of people—contractors, developers—see this as a gravy train. 

Patch: What do you feel could be done to improve public transit specifically in Palo Alto and its surrounding communities?

White: Well, if you’re going to spend this much money, there’s a couple of things that you could do. You could improve Caltrain and extend BART. The reason BART is so expensive is because of land and other things. But if you really want effective public transit around the Bay Area, you’d use BART.

I would invest that money in light rail by the Caltrain station so you can get to other places in Palo Alto, or Mountain View or San Jose. But getting people to use light rail isn’t easy. San Jose has light rail but virtually nobody uses it. BART, people do ride. BART is also seen as a hopelessly expensive enterprise, but it’s pennies compared to this stuff. 

Patch: It looks like Caltrain isn’t doing so well right now with talks about cutting a station and eliminating weekend service.

White: What you’ll do is strangle it, make it less convenient. There will be less people who ride it, more people in cars.

It’s not clear they have any viable route in Los Angeles, or certainly the Peninsula opposes it so much, it won’t go through here at all. It will just go into the Central Valley. How they’re going to get it into San Francisco is completely unclear.

The transcontinentals, the Chinese rail—all these things, I’m afraid, are examples of what’s going to happen.

Patch: There’s no learning from history, and people trying to redo their errors?

White: Well, it’s not so much you learn from history. It’s that transcontinentals set up a structure, a kind of federal subsidizing of corporations, which remains intact. Once you have that structure, you can apply it to all kinds of things. Even though here there will be a high-speed rail authority that will run it, money will run into private hands for private property. I’m not against infrastructure spending, I’m not against even public spending, but you have to look at these things very closely, and I’m afraid this would be a 21st century version of the transcontinental railroads.

Patch: And those railroads, I’m assuming, didn’t get the ridership they projected?

White: They were actually going to be freight railroads, and they had to end up subsidizing steamship companies to raise their rates and get things shipped to the East Coast so the railroads could compete with them.

Initially you didn’t need transcontinental railroads, but you needed them about 30 years after you built them. It’s perfectly conceivable to me that in 25 or 30 years, California might need high-speed rail. By that time, there will be new technology. You won’t have this massive debt that you’ll have trouble paying off. You build it when you need it, probably more cheaply and with a more efficient technology.

So why build it before you need it, with a technology that will almost certainly be replaced in 25 or 30 years? The railroads that really could compete in the late 19th century were those that waited, not those that built first.

Ann Krueger Spivack May 10, 2011 at 04:13 PM
Thank you for the thoughtful article. Why can't manufacturers in the U.S. build the actual trains? Why do those jobs go overseas?
Rachel Stern May 11, 2011 at 08:08 PM
Thanks for reading, Ann. I don't necessarily agree with all his points, but felt it was good to get a perspective we don't hear so often. I have wondered the same thing about U.S. manufacturers. I guess a lot of it comes down to the fact that certain countries, like France, already have a lot of the technology and expertise for a project like this. But this could certainly be a good time for the U.S. to be an innovator and try new technology domestically, similarly to what many Silicon Valley companies have done.
Erik Em May 12, 2011 at 02:33 AM
Lots of points in this artical i could debate. I'll leave it with the fact that right now the trains that are to run on HSR are to be made with (i believe)50% parts made in the USA. I believe the trains are assembled on US soil as well. I think the potential of economic growth in the state of California is phenominal with a HSR network. I can guarantee millions of tourist fly back to their country wondering why in the hell CA doesn't have at least a partial transit network. How many people do you think would stay in CA another week if they could be in SF in 3-4 hours. This is, of course a california debate. the national media wants to treat this like a joke. it's not a joke. it's a serious attempt for CA to better its future. Still rational points given. the bottom line is you have a different philosophy on these matters. if the railroads weren't built when they were electrical and telephone connections would have been years behind. dams wouldn't have built. the transcontinental railroad laid the foundation america's boom times (and bust times). HSR is need for 20 years from now. Get a company like Thalys or Virgin. subsidize it with a 2-5 cent gasoline tax. When gas is $8.00 a gallon that won't keep you up at night. I agree that technology could one day progress to the point to where we are stuck in gridlock on 12 lane freeways in our electric cars on the way to dump out their iced tea at the airport. Or maybe we won't even leave our homes at all.
Lachlan Lee-Archer May 12, 2011 at 03:15 AM
I'm an Australian and the thing I find most interesting about the USA debate on HSR (and other matters) is the suggestion that spending public money is a bad thing, that companies profiting off public expenditure is a bad thing. What does it matter if developers, manufacturers and others see HSR as a gravy train? If that spending is in California and employing Californians then HSR is providing wider economic benefits that are likely to outweigh the cost of building the project. If the California Budget requires to pay a $1 billion subsidy on HSR for eternity as long as HSR is catalyzing devleopment opportunities, job creation etc, of at least $1 billion then it pays for itself. The other side of the 'balancing the budget' is that HSR has the capacity to offset other expenditure. Eg. Reduced expenditure on road upgrades, road maintenance, airport upgrades et al. The most creditable argument in the article from my perspective is the connectivity at each end of the line. How does an Angelino get to the LA HSR Station. If they drive to the station would they just drive to San Fran anyway? I definitely think it would be boon for tourists though. From Australia you pretty much fly into the states into either LA or San Fran. Most people only see one city but as Erik Em states in his comments if you could get a HSR to the other city in a few hours you'd probably stay another few days and go check it out. Anyway just my perspective. Lachlan Melbourne, Aus
SamuraiBlue May 12, 2011 at 05:13 AM
Tokyo did not had less public metro then LA when the Tokaido Shinkansen inaugurated in 1954 and yet it was able to payback construction cost and generating a profit since it first started. Stations that were virtually fishing villages grew to become some of the biggest industrial hubs AFTER the Tokaido Shinkansen was inaugurated. Do you have any arguments on those facts?
Rachel Stern May 12, 2011 at 08:36 PM
Thanks for your comment, Lachlan. First of all, I'm glad people as far away as Melbourne are reading! Secondly, I agree that there's often a misconception that spending public money is a bad thing here. The initial costs of a project of this magnitude are going to be huge, as they are anywhere. Yes, companies may profit off public expenditure, as you say, but they will also be giving back through the economic opportunities that come throughout the development of the rail. I also agree about the tourist boom. Friends/acquaintances from abroad or even the East Coast frequently ask me how long it takes to get from San Francisco to LA. When I mention 10-12 hours by bus or train, I can see many of them cringe, surprised it takes as long to get to two big cities in the same state as it would to cross two time zones in Europe on the HSR. And people drive to airports, so would driving to the HSR be any different?
Rachel Stern May 12, 2011 at 08:48 PM
Thanks for your comment, SamuraiBlue. I agree that HSRs can spur growth around them, and this is something that should be taken into the debate. California is also expected to grow in population by up to 60 million in 2050, so should we be planning now (through transportation and otherwise) to better accommodate this?
Rachel Stern May 12, 2011 at 08:56 PM
Good points, Erik Em. I agree that we have to start somewhere with the creation of a HSR, just as other countries have with their HSR networks. A good question to ask would be, if not now, then when? Especially as California faces a huge population boom and, with it, more gridlock.
David G May 14, 2011 at 12:28 AM
We absolutely need high-speed transit *but* it needs to happen at the right time and with the right plan. There has been to much focus on connecting cities like San Francisco to Los Angeles. These transit plans make sense on a large scale but when it comes to overall system efficiency, it will undoubtedly fail unless an equal effort is placed on intracity transit. Individuals and cities fighting HSR are too busy arguing about tunnels, bridges and impacts to recognize their own need for internal efficient transit. As a peninsula resident, I will be among the first to raise a hand and proclaim that our transit systems are awkward at best all need a realistic overhaul. Before we connect any cities or states with with HSR - individual cities need to be ready to get connected. - Intracity hubs need to be identified: urban, suburban and rural locations - Link independent and existing transit agencies. - Create a right of way infrastructure for busses, light rail and carpools - Find a way to make sure each agency is doing what they do best rather than trying to compete - Optimize system to minimize in-transit time and fuel consumption (gas and electricity) Only when each city and county are on a clear path to efficient intracity transit, will the vision of HSR be a viable reality. PS: please forgive any MissSpellings ;)
joseph May 24, 2011 at 02:29 AM
I am puzzled by a historian's analysis of the HSR project in areas where history lends him no expertise. A recent economic study conduced by academic economists in the UK directly contradicts White's opinion, that HSR will not benefit Gilroy. Their study was done on the positive economic impact in German to outlying towns connected to their HSR infrastructure. Their study demonstrated the economic impact is sustained and not due to the construction or "gravy train". One simple to understand benefit is our town, Gilroy will be connected to economic centers where there are jobs and that stabilizes and increases property values over the present case where we are predominately a car based town with minimal train service.
joseph May 24, 2011 at 03:03 AM
The URL for the Study http://www2.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/news/archives/2010/09/highspeedrail.aspx <blockquote High-speed rail lines bring clear and significant economic benefits to the communities they serve, the first thorough statistical study of the subject has discovered Economists discovered that towns connected to a new high-speed line saw their GDP rise by at least 2.7 per cent compared to neighbours not on the route. Their study also found that increased market access through high-speed rail has a direct correlation with a rise in GDP – for each one per cent increase in market access, there is a 0.25 per cent rise in GDP. The findings, from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Hamburg, may be used to support arguments for high-speed networks which are already being planned in the UK, US and across the world. Until now, no one has demonstrated that high-speed rail brings clear economic gains along its routes. /blockquote>

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